Barging Down France's Waterways

Ditmars is a Palos Verdes free-lance writer.

Countless glowing reports have familiarized travelers with the romance of cruising on the historic waterways of France.

But the dilemma persists: to book a cabin on one of the luxurious "hotel barges" or reserve a do-it-yourself craft. The British label these smaller boats self-catering or self-drive. To U.S. skippers they are bare-boat charters. The French term is le bateau nu .

We call them the sophisticated camp-out. Serene, carefree, adventurous. To rough it for one or two weeks on a Blue Line houseboat/barge means bicycling to a village boulangerie for still-warm bread or to a patisserie for an incomparable raspberry tart and negotiating with the lock keeper's wife for dressed chickens from her henhouse, artichokes from her garden and a few bottles of her recent vintage.

With 92 locks on a two-week cruise, Castlenaudary to the Mediterranean and back, there is plenty of activity.

Ditto for Hotel Barges

But Capt. Alain Janet of the Litote, one of Continental Waterways' hotel barges on the Burgundy canals, says the sedentary image of the hotel barges is a false one.

"You can be as active and athletic as you please. Energetic passengers leap off the boat, help crank open the iron gates at the 60 locks navigated during our week's cruise, Dijon to Chalon-sur-Saone. They explore the countryside by bike or on foot, sightsee castles and museums and taste-tour famous wine cellars."

One passenger, an avid gardener from Pasadena, kept Litote's flower boxes shipshape and weeded the barge's herb garden on the poop deck. For these chores Barbara Ridpath became the darling of Litote's crew.

A couple from Sydney (who taught us that the Australian term for trash collector is garbiologist ) were so devoted to English breakfasts that they pedaled off for eggs to add to the croissant petit dejeuner .

One Vancouver horseman wangled a ride on a French-speaking appaloosa in Chateauneuf.

Adventurous Balloon Ride

At 7 o'clock one balmy morning, half the 20 passengers disembarked for an expedition in two hot-air balloons. Not athletic, but adventure with a capital A.

The balloon's pilot, Jack Campbell, said: "Once my wife, Janie, and I entered this seven-story-tall balloon in a race over the vineyards of the Upper Loire. We lifted her to the optimum altitude and made 30 miles in 3 1/2 hours, compared to an average cruising speed of eight knots."

"What! In this waist-high basket? I should think your brains would have blown out."

"Not at all. A silk scarf draped over the rim of the basket at 1,000 feet will not even ripple. We move horizontally at exactly the speed of the wind. Not a hair will blow out of place, nor a sheet of paper flutter in the log book."

Well, you feel the liftoff.

Pilot in Complete Total Control

With that blast of flame and blower, the pilot controls the balloon vertically with such precision that he can dip us down to tap the road, then lift us 2,000 feet, grazing the trees as we rise. I picked a maple leaf in flight.

Rates for the two methods of cruising the canals and rivers of Burgundy, Brittany, the Chablis and Loire and in the South of France vary as dramatically as do the experiences.

Barge companies publish five tariff periods between March 1 and Nov. 12. On a Blue Line do-it-yourself cruise the price on a four-passenger houseboat/barge ranges from about $85 to $175 per person a week, which covers everything except food, wine and spirits.

On Continental Waterways' all-inclusive hotel barge cruises (down to the last glass of Champagne and afternoon tea biscuit), rates are $1,140-$1,540 per person a week. The two-hour balloon excursion ($125-$150) and tips were the only additional expenses.

Tempting Cuisine on Hotels

Some comparisons: Whether it's an 8- or a 22-passenger hotel barge, the four-star cuisine, prize wines and colorful presentation checks any temptation to try waterside restaurants.

On the self-drive, we have the choice of concocting meals in the boat's beautifully equipped galley or savoring regional fare in restaurants along the way.

Captains of the hotel barges become chauffeurs of accompanying minibuses to escort us to Beaune for the Flemish architecture, for the 15th-Century hospice, for shopping and, in hushed candle-lit cellars, to sample wines that retail for as much as $80 a bottle.

They deliver us to special guides at chateaux, abbeys, cathedrals and the Ducal Palace at Dijon.

Choices Are Yours

On your chartered houseboat/barge you make all the choices:

Do you want to stay two days tied up at Carcassone to fully explore the medieval fortified city and try its renowned cafes? (We elected to hang around three days, beaching and swimming in the Mediterranean.)

Are you happiest browsing in the great open-air markets, skipping lunch in favor of three ice cream cones?

Do you want to be exclusive, sharing the adventure with only one or two other couples or your own family group?

Do you want to take the baby?

Many veteran travelers prefer the camaraderie of a boatload of new faces, new stories and charming crew members (mostly British in these English-owned companies) who cater to every whim.

For descriptive brochures, schedules and rates write to Blue Line Cruisers Ltd., Haven House, Quay Street, Truro, Cornwall TR1 2UE, England, and Continental Waterways, 19 Rue de Athenes, 75009 Paris, France. Your travel agent can also supply 1986 information.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World